Rockland to try short-duration Main Street closures; allows Oak Street restaurants to use sidewalk, parking spaces

Tue, 06/09/2020 - 12:15pm

Story Location:
Cafe Miranda
Rockland  Maine
United States

    ROCKLAND – As a way of attracting customers and pedestrians to Rockland’s Downtown district during the pandemic, Main Street will be closed Friday, June 19, from 5 to 11 p.m., and Saturday, June 20, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

    The weekend closure experiment will allow the Main Street closure advisory committee to observe the fruit of their making in real time before providing any tweaks ahead of closures the weekend after.

    In deference to concerns and opposition to an outright closure of Main Street for a month – or even permanently — the City of Rockland is inching forward through small steps towards its goal of expediting a local economic upturn.

    On Monday, June 8, City Council members voted to allow closure of Oak Street, from June 9, 2020 through October 31, 2020, so that patrons of Cafe Miranda and Fog could take advantage of outdoor dining directly adjacent to those businesses along the small, one-way street.

    “I think that this is a great direction to be going, in terms of closing the entirety of Main Street,” said Councilor Ben Dorr. “That’s something that we would love to do, but the truth is that we’ve built a highway through our downtown, and just closing it feels like a real challenge. But the more of these small side spaces that we can identify in the city, and close and allow restaurants and businesses to come out of their confines of their normal retail space …. I think [it] is going to go a long way this summer, and maybe we can identify some spaces that we would rather have them be pedestrian malls and outdoor seating in years to come.”

    In past years, Cafe Miranda’s Kerry Altiero has received permission to use the public and municipal parking and traffic space outside his restaurant for one-day events. Last month, he approached Council with a similar request, but for a longer duration. Other downtown restaurants wanting to do the same outside their own venues wait to hear how Council responded, according to City Manager Tom Luttrell, during the June 1 City Council agenda-setting meeting.

    To clog the sidewalks with tables and chairs puts pedestrians at risk, he told Council. Mayor Lisa Westkaemper, however, believed that Rockland could learn how other municipalities succeeded in keeping both chairs and pedestrians on their sidewalks.

    Council’s other concerns centered around previously charging Brass Compass a $1,500 fee for the use of an abutting public space, and the fairness in charging one entity and not the other.

    The two situations are profoundly different, said Councilor Valli Geiger. Brass Compass has been using their abutting public space for ten years. Cafe Miranda’s request, according to Geiger, is no different than what Council is suggesting for Main Street outdoor dining.

    “It’s about having enough dining, during COVID, to survive,” she said.

    Geiger said she wants the City to figure out how to encourage all of Rockland’s existing restaurants to do outdoor dining.

    “It seems to me there’s a way,” she said.

    Geiger also stressed that outdoor dining that uses public thruways should be clear about their hours.

    When asked if Fog had interest in making use of the Oak Street closure, they stated enthusiasm, according to Dorr. Yet, their concern was for the tenants who lived above them. Where would they park, if not in their usual lot?

    “Any time we make a change like that, without thinking through all of the potential problems, it does leave us open for having to come back and do it later,” said Councilor Ed Glaser.

    Glaser expressed concern that Council will receive criticisms in the future for not thinking of, and prioritizing, all of the small issues. Because of that, he stated a wish that Council had sat down a little bit longer and thought things through a little more carefully.

    In response, Dorr agreed that one needs to think long and hard when closing streets.

    Eventually, though, “the question just comes down to where we put our priorities,” he said. “Is it with people, or is it with their cars?”

    Glaser, however, did approve of the overall street-closure idea.

    “I think the more of these side streets that we could convert into little malls like this, the better it is going to be for the city,” he said. “Because it doesn’t slow the traffic down on Main Street. It just cuts down on some of the access.”